The truth about UC Berkeley’s ‘grade deflation’

haas grade curves 001
Deanne Chen/Staff

It was admissions day. All across the country, hopeful high schoolers were receiving letters about college decisions, and some of them were destined for UC Berkeley. We smiled at the prospect of these baby Bears joining one of the best campuses in the world. They have four amazing years of learning ahead of them. They were so lucky. At least, that’s what we thought at first.

A few hours later, a student from our old high school emailed us to ask our thoughts about UC Berkeley. The first thing she said was: “I’m really concerned with the rigor of academics at UC Berkeley. Are there a lot of problems with the grade deflation and the apparent insanity people go through to get a high GPA?”

We paused to think. Grade deflation? Insanity? For three years at UC Berkeley, we had accepted the academic rigor as a way of life. We had always thought that going to a top-tier school meant a heavy work load and, at times, disappointing grades. We had never stopped to think that UC Berkeley could be the exception — and not in a good way.

A simple Google search shows how many other students have the same concerns as the girl from my high school, as links to posts titled “Berkeley and it’s infamous GPA deflation,” “Does grade deflation really exist at Berkeley?” and “Do graduate schools know/care about Cal’s grade deflation?” all appear. As it turns out, UC Berkeley’s policies lie in stark contrast to those of other well-reputed schools across the country.

In 2001, Harvard University was heavily criticized by the Boston Globe when more than 90 percent of its class graduated with honors. But this isn’t uncommon. In the 2012-13 academic year, A’s made up 53.4 percent of all grades at Brown University. At Yale University, the ad hoc committee on grading found that between 2010 and 2012, 62 percent of all grades were in the A-range. Though these numbers are surprising, they follow a general upward trend in grading, which started in the 1960s.

Since the 1960s, grades at private institutions have increased at an average rate of 0.15 grade points per decade. One of the most persistent theories explaining this revolves around the Vietnam War. Because flunking a course or being suspended from college would make a student eligible to be drafted into the military, the argument claims that anti-war professors began passing students who otherwise would have failed. This theory, however, only marginally explains the trend. As it turns out, the increase was mainly seen in A’s and B’s, not in lower grades. Others attribute the higher grades to aggressive students and cowardly professors. Whatever the reason may be, the fact remains that grade inflation is real and is possibly getting worse.

In 2004, in an attempt to curb grade inflation, Princeton University’s faculty senate passed a resolution that asked all departments to restrict the number of A-range grades to no more than 35 percent of all grades given. Though it was not a hard quota, sufficient pressure was put on all departments to significantly decrease the number of A-range grades handed out. But not every department brought its share of A’s quite to 35 percent. A follow-up study done in 2014 shows that only two departments are actually below the target: economics and physics. A few others, including molecular biology, sit just above the target, while humanities classes in general see much higher grades.

Though there is much controversy over Princeton’s grade-deflation policies, they are still a far cry from the policies here at UC Berkeley, at which some science classes require that no more than 15-20 percent of grades given be A’s, leading to a stark difference between the average graduating GPA from UC Berkeley as compared with that of elite private institutions.


But Nathan Black, a junior transfer student in the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, doesn’t agree that grading policy directly affects class difficulty. “I’m a history minor, so I take many history classes that are actually a lot harder than my business classes. Even though there are competitive grading scales in some of my classes, that doesn’t necessarily change the difficulty level. When I’m taking a class, I think about the content and not so much about the grading scale associated with mastering the content.”

Regardless of the disparity among departments, the fact remains that UC Berkeley students are getting fewer A’s than their counterparts at private institutions. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 66 percent of employers screen candidates by analyzing their GPA. Most professionals state that they take a holistic approach in assessing candidates, be it for higher education or job applications. In reality, however, it is almost impossible to eliminate the correspondence bias, in which an evaluator attributes too much to a candidate’s disposition and too little to the situation.

In a study conducted by UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School researchers, admission professionals were put in an artificial situation in order to determine whether or not a correspondence bias existed. Each participant was given GPA and the distribution from which the GPA came. Participants read the following instructions: “In this exercise, you will be playing the role of a member of the admissions committee at a selective MBA program. Your most important goal is to select the best candidates from among the applicants. The set of applicants that you will review all graduated from colleges of similar quality and selectivity. Please review each applicant carefully in order to assess the quality of their prior academic performance in college.”

What the researchers found was that high-performing students from low-GPA schools were given lower ratings than under-performing candidates from high-GPA schools. Applicants from schools with higher average grades are thus more likely to be accepted just because their GPAs are higher, regardless of their personal skill level and the difference in grade distributions between schools. This, clearly, is a cause for concern for students at institutions with tougher grading standards.

But when asked if grade deflation policies hurt a student’s chances, Edward Tom — dean of admissions at the UC Berkeley School of Law — said, “No, I don’t think so, because Berkeley has a fantastic reputation worldwide and among admissions officers. There are always subjective considerations that we take into account, and the report we get from law services details a little bit about each applicant and their school’s history.”

Black agreed. “Haas as a brand name definitely gets you in the door at many job interviews,” he says.

The fact of the matter is that your GPA is just a number — perhaps a slightly lower number than it would have been at certain elite private institutions, but still only a number. At the end of the day, UC Berkeley’s fantastic reputation will get you that interview. And even if it doesn’t, your friends and family are still impressed that you go to the best public school in the world.

Image source: 


Contact Shruti Koti at [email protected].

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  • Arlene Murillo

    I remember it was a big shock when I got my first ever C in college, and I had to work damn hard for that C too. Typical grading for most of my EECS classes was that if you were in the mean (average) you got a C, one standard deviation above for a B, and 2 standard deviations above for an A. Any A- that I got was a 3.7, but the few A+’s I received was *not* a 4.3 (boo). At least this taught me that not everything will be handed over to you w/o working hard for it, and to be resilient enough to bounce back when things don’t go your way.

  • Jeff Hall

    DUMBEST thing I have heard out of the college systems in quite a while.
    I think setting the number of people who can get an “A” to a certain percentage should be flat out against the law (at least in public schools). If every damn kid in the department is a genius and 80% of them earn what should typically be an “A” by normal college academic standards then they should all get an “A”. I am pretty sure the work is sufficiently hard at Berkeley to prevent that from happening without placing artificial limits on it.

  • It’s actually a good thing and a good information that you have shared this. It can help other people to know some idea on what is the reason on this kind of problem that they don’t seem to understand or appreciate.

  • John Freier

    Saw and felt that the whole way through. Not only is your GPA not ‘just a number’ for … wow, how many reasons need be stated?

    But, you can also propose that there may be a huge psychological effect that this number can have on students. It’ll easily affect students’ self-evaluation, self-confidence, and their perceived understanding of topics.

    Then I’d say that the possibly most important (and likely overlooked) effect, could be from the self-fulfilling prophecy rearing its head.

    To me I feel that competitive environments and grading ‘philosophies’ can really cater to different individuals’ learning styles, and so an oft repeated question in my head is ‘Hmm… well, now I naturally sweat blue and gold, but if or when I have children and they ask me on some lucky day – ‘should I go to Stanford or UC Berkeley?’ – I might have to lean down to whisper my recommendation…

    Maybe UC Berkeley should take a step back sometime and think about the long term effects of how they enforce things and how those enforcements might affect future enrollment interest or … *** alumni donations *** ??

  • GabrielleD

    I go to a school which, as I just realised, has a grade deflation on par with Cal (average GPA across the board is 3.2). And no, it’s not that prestigious. So now I feel like I’m getting double-crossed.

    It frustrates me. The exams, as far as I’ve seen, are just as hard as the stuff students take at CalTech. But unlike CalTech, we don’t get open book policies or take-home exams, nor do we get the prestige. I think there should be some correlation between difficulty and the school, at least. There’s a reason I left medical school. To get demoralised and worsen my depression because of grades was NOT one of them.

    At least the schools should issue some comprehensive study of GPAs across the board. Sure, we get the average GPA of the Ivies, but what if you didn’t go there? How do you know if your GPA is actually a good reflection of your abilities or you’re getting screwed over?

  • sakky

    I believe that 1776 already answered your question. Nevertheless, it bears reiterating that his analysis was conditioning upon the applicant’s LSAT score. Chico State students compared to Berkeley students will have lower LSAT scores on average. However, if you happen to be one of the (admittedly rare) Chico State students with a high LSAT score, you will probably find it rather easy to be admitted to a top law school due to Chico’s easier grading standards.

    The unfortunate upshot is that many Berkeley pre-law students would probably have been better off had they attended Chico State instead, where they could have reaped the benefits of Chico’s easier grading. While Berkeley provides a bevy of advantages to its students, providing them with the opportunity to package together an optimized law school application sadly isn’t one of them. You will likely receive lower grades at Berkeley than you would at other schools, and the sad reality is that law-school adcoms place a premium upon high grades, while placing little to no emphasis upon how difficult it might have been at your school to receive high grades.

    • Vivian Li

      This really hits home for me. As an undergrad at a top Canadian university infamous for its grade deflation (U of Toronto), the way adcoms prioritize an applicant’s GPA over and above how difficult it may have been to get high grades in their respective school/program is patently unfair. (They usually make the excuse that such a contextual evaluation would be “impractical” to implement.) I personally have been on both sides of the fence — during my first two undergrad years at a lesser-ranked university, it was very easy to maintain near straight-A grades. My GPA was around a 3.8. Then, unfortunately, I was laid off my part-time job, which forced me to move back home and transfer to this university. BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY LIFE. Here at this school, and in this program, it is nigh impossible to get grades in the A range. The allowance is usually 10-15%, and furthermore, stingy professors are everywhere. I’m in a Humanities program; trust me when I say that to get 80+% in this program at this school, you have to literally write your papers to publishable standards (meanwhile I get 80+% grades in essay-based exams, so knowledge is not the issue). My GPA took a nose-dive at this school, and along with it, my hopes for law school. And my experience is far from unique: one of my classmates once submitted a paper in class, and gave her friend at another school (who was taking a similar course) the same paper to hand in. She received a 72% while her friend was given an 85%. Similarly, observing my peers around me, I see that many of them are highly intelligent and hard-working, and yet their GPAs are in the C or B range. I feel so bad for them. So the moral of the story is, if you have plans for post-grad education (or heck, even decent employment after graduation) it is most certainly in your BEST interest to attend a lower-ranked — and presumably “easier” — school for your undergraduate education. I sure wish I had known this before transferring to my current school.

      • Iain Riule

        The “BIGGEST MISTAKE OF (your) LIFE” was transferring to U.Toronto? You must have led a pretty charmed life!

        • Vivian Li

          It’s hyperbole, genius.

  • 1776

    LSAT, those schools correlate with kids who better take standardized tests. Average LSATs are higher at these schools than say Chico. In law school admissions LSAT out weights GPA, but my point still stands. A higher GPA at a school like Chico trumps a lower but similar GPA at Berkeley given the LSATS are the same. On the other hand a Chico kid with a 3.8 GPA but 155 LSAT probably won’t be getting admitted too Boalt over a Berkeley grad with a 3.6 GPA and 170 LSAT

  • historybuff3

    In my experience college grades really only matter for grad school and that first post-college job. After that employers give much more weight to applicants’ real full-time work experience and how well they performed on the job.

    • sakky

      Yet I think that’s precisely the point: lower gradings standards hinder your chances of admission to a top grad school or a top post-college job, where you are competing not just against other Berkeley graduates, but also against graduates from HYPS who will likely have higher grades than you do.

      Furthermore, the brutal truth is that the prestige of your graduate school or your first post-college job affects your future career prospects. The law-school ‘trinity’ (YLS,HLS,SLS) provides greater access to top law firms or to judicial clerkships than will a law school ranked in the 20’s, regardless of how well you perform. Having McKinsey or Goldman Sachs as your first post-college job opens more doors than working at an average company regardless of the quality of your work.

      • Vivian Li

        I agree, but in your first sentence I think you meant “*lower grades* hinder your chances” rather than “lower grading standards”. Lower grading standards would imply the opposite, as it would be easier to achieve high grades in such a system, and thus it would boost your chances of admission to grad school or a top job. But I’m just guessing this was a typo.

  • cellodad

    So, my “A’s” at Berkeley are worth even more? (Hardly a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for my Berkeley education.)

    • sakky

      Unfortunately, grades are only worth what others with power deem them to be worth. While you are certainly free to believe whatever you wish about the value of a Berkeley ‘A’, if others – notably, grad-school adcoms or company hiring managers – believe that a Berkeley ‘A’ is not worth more than an ‘A’ elsewhere, then for all intents and purposes, it isn’t worth more.

      The crux of the problem stems from the power that those aforementioned grad-school adcoms and hiring managers hold. Sadly, we can neither admit ourselves to grad-school nor hire ourselves for top jobs. Only the adcoms and hiring managers hold the power to do that. If they demand top grades and if – for whatever reason – you lack those grades, then your chances for admission/hiring will be damaged.

  • Niamriva

    GPA is just a number? That’s like saying “Oh you got shot in the leg by a mugger but at least you didn’t get shot in the face”. If I’m going to a university I want my grades to reflect my work, not get jipped out of them and get told to be happy because at least I get to ride the coattails of the university’s prestige.

    • cellodad

      “gypped” The reference is to “Gypsies” who were notorious in Europe for taking advantage of the local rubes.

  • Missy

    Hahahaha I’m from Chico and I transferred to Cal. True story…

  • 1776

    Berkeley may have a fantastic reputation and your GPA might just be a number, but here is the truth. That number is all the matters when it comes to applying to Law School. A 3.8 from Chico (I’ve seen what an A looks like there) will get you into Boalt over a 3.6 from Berkeley. Assuming both applicants have the same LSAT

    • Jeff Hall

      The same thing happens to kids coming out of high school going to college. My daughter goes to a super competitive high school. The academic rigor there is off the charts. But I’m certain that her 3.86 GPA would not get her into a college over kids with a 4.0 (or higher) from some of the high schools where they are just plowing the kids through the system.

  • s randall

    Great article.

    I think the chart says that Berkeley is inflating slower than the others, so there isn’t deflation. Inequity might be a better word.

    Everyone knows this is going on, but it is hard for those hiring to not be influenced. I would think graduate and professional schools would be more systematic about dealing with this bias though.

    I think that Berkeley should get rid of the plus and minus corrections. I always seemed to get more minuses than pluses, and an A+ only gets counted as a 4.0 instead of a 4.3.

    • Frogger

      Sadly, I think it’s the same for a lot of schools with the +/- system.